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Getting a break into tea tasting, a short stint at Mobil and then back to tea



Learning the ropes amd acquiring new tastes in London

Excerpted from the autobiography of Merril J. Fernando

In my youth I was very fortunate in having been able to spend the occasional holiday on tea estates of affluent friends. Those interludes were my first introduction to tea but, at that time, it never occurred to me that later in life my fortunes would be so greatly influenced by plantations and their product. I spent time on estates in the Pundaluoya and Kotmale Districts, belonging to K. R. Mathavan and his brothers, Karuppiah and Arumugam, as well as their uncle, S. Thondaman, later President of the very powerful Ceylon Workers’ Congress and Cabinet Minister of two governments.

Notwithstanding their wealth and influence, they were very nice and simple people. Those visits gave me an early exposure to the cultivation and manufacture of tea. I also became familiar with the role of the plantation workers and their lives. Their dedication and commitment to work, despite the difficult conditions they worked under, left a lasting impression on me. What I observed then, especially the unrelentingly-demanding lives of the plantation workers and their very basic living conditions, influenced the many initiatives I was able to launch for their welfare, when I acquired the resources to do so later on in life.

My ambition at that stage of my life was to enter Law College and become a lawyer, to defend innocent people charged for crimes which they did not commit. But fate decided otherwise and diverted me from this idealistic vision.

A unique opportunity

Soon after I passed my Senior School Certificate examination, whilst I was preparing to enter Law College, I learned that the Tea Controller was proposing to recruit a few local young men for training in tea tasting, under the Government Tea Taster, O. P. Rust, then Managing Director of Darley Butler & Co. Ltd. Britishers, who dominated the tea business then, were of the firm view that locals did not have the palate to make good tea tasters, as they ate too much spicy food!

My interest was aroused, as this opportunity arose soon after one of my plantation holidays and, hence, I decided to apply. The decision to train locals in tea tasting was a reluctant response by the British tea firms then operating in Colombo to numerous requests made to them, over several years, by the Government of Ceylon. At that time the Tea Commissioner was P. Saravanamuttu, who had also exerted much pressure on these companies to open their closely-guarded field to locals.

In the mid-1940s the Tea Commissioner’s Department had trained a few Ceylonese – Lionel Cooray, Errol de Fonseka, Austin Perera, and Mahinda Wijesekera – as tea tasters but with the end of World War II and the return of Britishers to pre-war civilian occupations in the country, the doors were once again firmly closed to locals. There are also reliable reports that this pioneer group of Ceylonese tea tasters had been subjected to open resentment by some of their European colleagues.

In contrast to their jealous protection of tea tasting as a private British preserve, the almost-entirely British-controlled plantation management firms had started recruiting Ceylonese youth to the plantations at least a decade earlier. Of course, there was a great element of compulsion behind that move as well, as with the onset of World War II, a large number of British planters had left the plantations to join the overseas British forces.

Many of them did not return and, in the interim, most of the management vacancies on estates had to be filled by Ceylonese youth. That apart, with the release of the colonies from the British Empire being an early possibility, following the granting of independence to India, Ceylon was no longer as attractive as it used to be, to young Britishers looking for a life of both adventure and well-paid comfort in a British dominion. As a result of the high exodus and low influx of expatriates over the two decades post-Independence, most of the key positions in the plantation sector and allied interests came to be occupied by local executives.

The British masters of the industry would have also soon realised that the latter were capable of delivering results as efficiently, and at a much lower cost, than their British predecessors.

The Tea Controller, A. O. (“Gusty”) Weerasinghe, was an old boy of St. Peter’s College. Fr. D. J. Nicholas Perera, my former teacher and benefactor, had been the Rector of St. Peter’s for some years and I asked him whether he knew Mr. Weerasinghe and, if so, would he help.

The good Reverend, at that time Director of the St. Aloysius Seminary, almost immediately provided the necessary introduction, along with a very complimentary letter of recommendation. Thus, in the latter part of 1950, I commenced my training as a tea taster, along with a few other local trainees – Channa Gunasekera, Oscar Dalpathado, Patrick Pereira, and S. Shanmugarajah, as the second group of `natives’ to break into this exclusive preserve.

Thereafter, the numbers of Ceylonese entering the tea tasting profession steadily increased, due mainly to the gradual retirement of expatriates occupying senior positions in the tea broking and tea exporting companies, as well as in the estate agency houses.

Of my co-trainees, Channa enjoyed a long and successful career as a tea-taster and buyer, I believe almost entirely with Brooke Bond till retirement, whilst “Sam” Shanmugarajah, after a spell with Rowley Davies, and thereafter Carsons, also moved across to Brookes. Apart from being a respected tea man, Channa was also a famous cricketer, representing the then ‘All Ceylon’ team on many occasions.

Entrepreneurship – an early lesson

Whilst I was undergoing training, I realized the need to support myself and at this juncture, my connections with the Mathavan family came in handy. With the little knowledge of tea I was gaining as a trainee tea taster, I started a small tea business by supplying bulk tea to retail shops and restaurants in and around Negombo, with tea bought from Medetenne and Meddeloya Estates, Kotmale, owned by the Thondaman/Mathavan family group.

I also bought from private auctions. I sold at an average of about Rs. 2 per pound and made a profit of around 20 cents per pound, selecting my tea carefully, ensuring that what I delivered to my customers was of consistent quality. Consequently, many of the retailers I approached had no hesitation in leaving their previous suppliers and switching to me. That was my very first and, without doubt, most valuable practical lesson in marketing — that the customer is prepared to pay a decent price for genuine quality, provided that the supplier ensures consistency of the product. The proceeds enabled me to pay the installments on a brand new Morris Minor, my first car.

Mr. Rust was a great teacher, extremely patient and tolerant. After my initial training, I was very fortunate in continuing my indoctrination in tea at Heath & Co, which was the largest exporter of tea at that time. It dominated exports to Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, South Africa, and Iraq. Two dynamic Partners, A. G. (Sandy) Mathewson, an Englishman, and Stan J. Campbell, an Australian. owned the company then.

Whilst I was under training at Heath, I was also interviewed by Hamilton H. Gourlay, then Senior Partner of George Steuart & Co., the leading estate agency house in the country, for a position in its tea department. Sandy Mathewson very kindly provided me with a recommendation. However, another candidate, J. F. A. Peries, was selected. He was the first local recruit as an executive to GS & Co and, subsequently, became its first local Board member and first Sri Lankan Chairman.

At the time of his recruitment, GS & Co was a private partnership, with all members being expatriates. Peries’s recruitment too would have been a reluctant concession by the British rulers of commerce in Ceylon, to the need for gradual Ceylonisation of management, commencing at the bottom rung.

In his memoir, ‘A Personal Odyssey,’ Peries writes that Brian Van Houten of the ‘Times of Ceylon’ had also been interviewed at the same time, for the same position.

“Tony,” as he was better known, modestly attributes his selection to better connections. He became my friend later on and, after some initial opposition, was helpful in my securing membership in the Ceylon Tea Propaganda Board, an episode I will recount later on this writing.

A change of direction

Mr. Mathewson took me under his direct care in the tasting room. After a year’s training, he asked me if I would like to go to London and be trained at J. L. Lyons, the then UK tea giant. I immediately agreed and he set about making the necessary travel arrangements. My application for a trainee’s position in London was also supported by a recommendation, in the form of a personal letter from John Black, then Director, Somerville and Co., addressed to Rae Culverhouse, Director of Ridgways, UK, a tea firm in business since 1836.

Whilst all this was going on, there was another unexpected development in my life. My uncle Victor Salgado, who operated a successful car sales business in Kurana, Negombo, took me to see his friend Sam Selviah, who was then a Senior Executive at Standard Vacuum Oil Company (Mobil). I had no idea that I was being taken for an employment interview, until I met Messrs. Selviah and Sam Strassberger, also of the same company!

On conclusion of the meeting, or interview, I was offered a job as Retail Merchandising Assistant, reporting to C. A. Kelso, an American marketing specialist, who would train me over the next three months. The terms were quite attractive, a salary of Rs. 250 per month, coupled with a living allowance, as well as a mileage allowance for using my own car for travel, amounting to Rs. 1,500 per month, approximately.

The offer was too tempting to turn down and, at 22 years of age, displaying what I later realized to be a distressing lack of responsibility in suddenly abandoning my trainee tea taster programme, I immediately accepted.

I knew that my decision to suddenly leave Heath and Co would be a great disappointment to Mr. Mathewson, who had extended such goodwill to me. Therefore I did not discuss the matter with him, beforehand. The other factor which influenced my decision to accept the Mobil offer was that, despite the training we were being given as tea tasters, it was still a field that the British tea company owners considered a private preserve. Regardless of the training, access to the trade was not assured. Ceylon had achieved Independence a couple of years earlier but, still, our colonial masters owned and wrote the rule book.

From the very beginning I enjoyed my work as a Merchandising Assistant at Mobil Oil, which required me to fix my own programme to travel throughout the country, visiting gas stations. After one year in the role, I was offered the important position of Regional Inspector, actually a different title for a Regional Sales Representative, covering a vast area, from Colombo across to the North Central Province. This role carried the authority for establishing, in competition with Shell and Caltex oil companies, new fuel distribution stations, for which there was a rapidly-growing demand.

I was very successful from the beginning as I had very good contacts, both friends and relatives. In some cases, I was able to persuade potential customers to break away from existing contracts with the other two competitors. However, I soon realized that this business was open to and driven by bribery. Potential investors in Mobil petrol stations and service stations had to offer bribes to company inspectors. I was offered money to approve these investments, when I should, in fact, be incentivizing them instead.

I refused to accept such gratifications and picked investors entirely on merit. When new filling stations were eventually opened, the owners would again offer me money which I never accepted, pointing out that they were doing me a favour and that I should be grateful to them for the business. My conscience did not permit me to accept gifts or other rewards from clients, for doing the job for which I was being paid a regular salary by my employer.

Re-entering the tea trade – A. F. Jones

Within a short time after commencing my assignment with Mobil, I began to have differences of opinion with my colleagues. The impression had been created that I was not a team player. A primary reason for this friction was my firm refusal to accept any type of unregulated financial benefit in connection with my professional business transactions with clients. Unfortunately, the practice seemed to be entrenched in the system.

Eventually, because of the open displays of dislike and disapproval from other company men, which made my life unpleasant, I decided to leave Mobil and look around for an opening elsewhere, preferably in tea. Despite my somewhat precipitate departure from the earlier tea tasting training programme, Sandy Mathewson of Heath & Co again provided me with a good reference. Eventually I was called for an interview by A. F. Jones & Co. Ltd, and recruited as a Junior Tea Assistant on August 19, 1954. I was confirmed in that position on April 29, 1955, at a salary of Rs. 750 per month. A condition of my appointment was that I go for further training to London, at my own expense.

A. F. Jones was a small family business owned by A. F. Jones, the father, and the two sons, Dennis and Alan. There were two other Englishmen — a brilliant tea expert in Terrence Alan and a competent Finance Manager in Geoff Law. After a few months of coaching in Colombo I left for London to work with Joseph Travers Ltd., 119, Cannon Street, London EC4, a short distance from Mincing Lane, which was the Tea Centre of the World then.

London – maiden overseas visit

My first visit to London, which was also my first overseas trip, was in the winter of 1954, traveling in the ‘SS Himalaya,’ on its maiden voyage from Australia to London. I paid 92 pounds for a single berth, tourist class cabin. It was a very pleasant journey, during which I made friends with several Australian girls, fellow passengers, two of whom I corresponded with for several years. The Himalaya touched at the port of Aden, where, in a bazaar on the waterfront, I purchased two nice sweaters for 10 shillings each, delighted at what seemed to be a great bargain.

The next stop was Port Said and then on to Tilbury, England. We docked at 1 p.m. but it seemed to be dark enough for the time to be 1 a.m. My friends on the ship pointed out to this bemused first timer that it was winter in England! My good school friend Moritz Fernando, then an accountant in a British firm, accompanied by Ronnie Peiris, a Ceylonese living in London, met me at the Tilbury docks and brought me to London. I was mortally scared of navigating the escalators at tube stations, contraptions which I had not seen before. Moritz had to hold my hand initially, until I got over my fear.

I rented a basement flat at 7, Kensington Place at 2.10 pounds per week. My landlady was the widowed Ms. L. M. Butler, whose husband had been an Army officer, killed in action in World War II. She was a very devout Christian who made certain that I accompanied her to Holy Mass every Sunday and on the first Friday of the month, at St. Teresa’s Carmelite Church, a short distance away.

There was an adjoining flat to mine and the two had a common bathroom and toilet. On the second day after my arrival in London, I enjoyed a nice warm bath and sat in front of the gas fire in my living room reading the newspapers. I soon heard a knock at the door and an irate lady, Ms. Faskin, who shared Mrs. Butler’s flat, appeared in the doorway and accused me of having used her bathwater. That day, I learned that I had to wash the bathtub and fill it myself. I did not make that mistake again.

I also discovered that the two sweaters I purchased in Aden had only the front but no back! Therefore, I was compelled to buy two sweaters in London at 10 pounds each. It was an early lesson that cheap things come at a price! I also bought myself a black suit for seven pounds, a duffle coat for five pounds and a few white shirts with detachable collars, which enabled washing off the black soot from the smog. When I finally left London I sold my black suit for five pounds and the coat for three pounds.

I used to travel by underground train from Notting Hill Gate to Bank Station for work, paying nine pence each way. Russell Shaw, Chairman of Joseph Travers & Sons Limited, and all its staff welcomed me and cared for me right through my stay in London. With the first snowfall in London, I rushed outside to see snow and staff members helped me to make snowballs. My thoughts went back to my school days, when I read about the ‘snowman’. I experienced a childish delight in my first encounter with snow!

At Joseph Travers & Sons Ltd., I was paid the princely sum of four pounds per week and staff members were provided lunch daily, for a weekly payment of two pounds. Several senior staff members invited me to their homes for frequent Sunday lunches and the traveling involved enabled me to visit many of the suburbs of London.

The Manager of the Tea Department was J. S. Boyce, a very kind gentleman who showed genuine concern about my personal welfare. I worked directly under J. R. Keyt, who spent much time teaching me about both the UK trade as well as their overseas export trade operations. My colleague was D. V. Baldock. Every day, during the tea break we had a cup of coffee together, at nine pence a cup.

Once I developed a bad toothache whilst at work. Mr. Boyce took me to Guys Hospital, which was also a well-known teaching hospital with an attached medical college. The dentist on duty at the time of my admission decided that an extraction was necessary and struggled, without success, with my aching tooth for over an hour. Then another dentist, a lady, was called in, who admitted that the previous doctor was actually a student, and obviously inexperienced. However, she too had a hard time with the extraction, grumbling that Asians had very strong gums. Dental care and procedures then, even in England, were much less advanced than today and I was quite ill for three days after the surgery. Mr. Boyce, very considerately, called every day to check on my progress.

A new society

On Saturday evenings many of us expatriates used to meet at specially-organized social events, which were attended by a large number of East European and Asian students. There were cocktails, dinner, and dancing which would go on till midnight. Some of the men present would confidently introduce themselves to the girls, but, initially, I was reluctant to do so for fear of being snubbed. However, once I shed my timidity I was able to find attractive dancing partners though the girls used to be quite selective, often refusing some of my friends’ requests. We would then introduce our partners to those who had been turned down.

Another regular meeting place for Ceylonese in London was the Ceylon Students’ Centre in Paddington. We went there regularly to enjoy what would have then been the cheapest meal in London, at 50 pence per head, which fetched us a tasty rice and curry. Quite naturally, the place used to be highly patronized, especially on weekends, when it was not unusual for the food to run out. There were also recreational activities, such as billiards, with the table being booked most of the time, and table tennis, at which I used to generally beat all comers.

I made many friends in London. Two people in particular, Siva and Pat Subramanium, who will feature later in this story, became very dear to me and my family.

Acquiring new tastes

The spell in London, my first overseas visit, inspired several significant changes in my vision and general outlook. On the one hand, it exposed me to the harsh realities of the international tea export trade. I learned lessons that I would never forget and, in many ways, which also helped me chart my business course over the next few decades. On the other, its long duration and the absence of severe work pressure gave me time for reflection, enabled me to absorb many new impressions and acquire new tastes, and also inculcated in me a life-long passion for travel and fresh cultural experiences.

Whilst never losing sight of both work and professional diligence as non-negotiable virtues, I also decided that life would be unfulfilled unless work was combined with fun, pleasure, and new experiences. I spent time and money on enjoying classical music, saving up to attend concerts at Albert Hall and Royal Festival Hall, as well as the opera and ballet at Covent Garden. I also enjoyed some amazing theatre in the West End. Those new cultural experiences fashioned my tastes, widening my horizons and enriching my world view. My subsequent travels all over the world, in the pursuit of my business, enabled me to indulge my tastes for such entertainment in many different countries.

While in London I purchased several classical music, opera, and ballet records and films from Harrods. The first day I bought some records, the sales assistant, Ms. Greenway, offered to hold my purchases until my departure, which was very convenient to me. She also helped me to select the best composers, quickly realizing that, despite my interest in classical music, my knowledge was poor.

When I returned to Ceylon after a five-month training, I brought with me Pds. 325. Mrs. Butler tried to persuade me to buy her terraced house for Pnds. 750, offering to arrange a mortgage. Rather shortsightedly, I did not even consider it. That apartment was worth four million pounds in the year 2019.

The purpose of my mission to London was to learn the art of branding and marketing of tea, the most vital segments of the tea industry, then almost totally dominated by Britain-based companies.

Even British companies operating in Ceylon were of the firm view that these vital aspects were beyond their competencies and reach and best left to the geniuses in London and other centres in the West.

Though my knowledge of plantations and the tea industry in general was limited, it was still of enormous value in understanding international marketing strategies and framing our tea farmers’ contribution in the context of the international tea trade, as demonstrated in London. What I saw and experienced during my training in London offered me a completely contrary view to my previous beliefs in the integrity of the British business style.

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Understanding policy of neutrality



Yuan Wang 5, Chinese research and survey vessel, at the Hambantota port in August, 2022.

by Neville Ladduwahetty

In order to assuage the apprehensions of India regarding the intended arrival of the Chinese research vessel Shi Yang 6 to Sri Lanka, an informed source of the National Aquatic Resources Research Agency (NARA) is reported to have said “a team of officials from the NARA would board Shi Yang 6 to observe research activities”. This act is “widely seen by Sri Lankan interlocutors as an attempt by the Government to signal to the countries which are at loggerheads with China that Sri Lanka is privy to what is transpiring in the whole process and to make sure that it will pose no security threat to any third country” (Daily Mirror, September 19, 2023).

Continuing the above DM report states: “Sri Lanka advocates a neutral foreign policy. However, India, Japan and the United States are skeptical about Chinese maritime activities in the Sri Lankan territorial waters since they fear that it is part of a major effort by China to systematically map the seabed across the vast swath of the Indian Ocean. They fear hydrographic data, collected in the process, can be used for security related purposes later …. Nevertheless, Sri Lanka insists that it is a neutral venue to all countries, and won’t allow its territory, be it sea, air space or land to be used against the security interests of another country, particularly India” (Ibid).


Sri Lanka is indeed encouraged and heartened by the stand the country has taken to exercise its rights in keeping with its stated policy of Neutrality backed up by provisions of Internationally accepted Customary Law relating to entitlements, such as exploring within Exclusive Economic Zones of Coastal states. However, this stand could be strengthened by incorporating provisions of International Law as stated in Part V of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea presented below.

By incorporating these provisions into the Corpus of Domestic Law, Sri Lanka would be in a much stronger position to exercise its sovereign rights in the Exclusive Economic Zone by way of imposing penalties on those who violate its provisions and in particular those who engage in illegal fishing and destroying natural resources by the fishing crafts of India and other countries.


Rights, jurisdiction and duties of the coastal State in the exclusive economic zone

1. In the exclusive economic zone, the coastal State has:

(a) sovereign rights for the purpose of exploring and exploiting conserving and managing the natural resources» whether living or non-living» of the waters superjacent to the sea-bed and of the sea-bed and its subsoil» and with regard to other activities for the economic exploitation and exploration of the zone such as the production of energy from the water currents and winds

(b) jurisdiction as provided for in the relevant provisions of this Convention with regard to:

(i) the establishment and use of artificial islands, installations and structures:

(ii) marine scientific research:

(iii) the protection and preservation of the marine environment:

(c) other rights and duties provided for in this Convention.

2. In exercising its rights and performing its duties under this Convention in the exclusive economic zone the coastal State shall have due regard to the rights and duties of other States and shall act in a manner compatible with the provisions of this Convention.

3. The rights set out in this article with respect to the sea-bed and subsoil shall be exercised in accordance with Part VI.


A top source that is considered to be familiar with Indian affairs is reported to have stated: “Sri Lanka’s neutral position is acceptable but it is doubtful for India whether Sri Lanka being economically weak, has the strength to maintain such an approach” (Ibid), and cited the example of India purchasing fuel from Russia despite objections by the United States. That top source has forgotten that India despite its power, once “invaded” Sri Lanka hoping to resolve the conflict in Sri Lanka and was compelled to return in shame having failed to fulfill its mission.

According to him “India can act in this way because it is powerful enough to resist any pressure…”. For India to buy oil from Russia despite objections from the U.S. means that these objections are relatively benign because the U.S. needs India as part of QUAD to counter China. However, this being a commercial arrangement, it cannot be compared with the legacy of despicable acts repeatedly committed against humanity of weaker States by so called “powerful states” in the pursuit of their interests.

It is evident that the “top source” is unaware that the International Order does not make a difference between “powerful states” and the rest, because one of the principal pillars on which the United Nations Charter rests states in Article 2 (1) that “The Organization is based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all its Members”.

Furthermore, Principles and Duties of a Neutral State are based on International Customary Law, which in its Introduction states: “The sources of the international law of neutrality are customary international law and, for certain questions, international treaties, in particular the Paris Declaration of 1856, the 1907 Hague Convention No. V respecting the Rights and Duties of Neutral Powers and Persons in Case of War on Land, the 1907 Hague Convention No. XIII concerning the Rights and Duties of Neutral Powers in Naval War, the four 1949 Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocol I of 1977 (ICRC Publication June 2022).

Despite the existence of such International provisions “powerful states” have not hesitated to brazenly flout its provisions in the pursuit of their interests most of which are warped imaginations.

For instance, it was India that imposed its will on Sri Lanka when it forced Sri Lanka to accept the 13th Amendment; an act that denied Sri Lanka the fundamental right of self-determination enshrined in Article 1 (2) of the Charter of the United Nations that state:

“To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples…”. This Amendment crafted by India compels Sri Lanka to adopt devolution to Provinces as a form of internal government to satisfy the imaginations of the Tamil community in Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu. This was violently rejected by the People when it was first introduced and ironically even after more than three decades continues to be rejected not only by the majority but also by the Tamil community in Sri Lanka. Despite such rejections, India keeps insisting the Sri Lanka should live by its provisions; the latest being at the ongoing General Assembly Secessions in New York.

Under the circumstances, Sri Lanka has to come up with an innovative strategy within the provisions of the Constitution to get free of 13A because its entrenched contradictions hinder peripheral development. What is most objectionable about devolution as a concept is that it fosters the operation of Central Government and Provincial Government functions simultaneously that often are at variance thus perpetuating disparities within and among Provinces amounting to entrenching discrimination among the Peoples; a fact that is starkly evident among the States in India and other countries that have divested Central power.

Another practice adopted by “powerful” India is to overlook the violations committed by the Fishing community in Tamil Nadu at the expense of the Fishing community in Sri Lanka, by robbing the maritime resources and vandalizing the marine environment by resorting to bottom trawling within Sri Lanka’s Exclusive Economic Zone notwithstanding the fact that it is a violation of Article 56 of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. Instead of raising such issues at bilateral meetings, despite the presence of the Minister of Fisheries, Sri Lanka has been trapped into commitment to issues of connectivity that bolster India’s influence over Sri Lanka.


While Sri Lanka appreciates and is proud of the position taken by NARA and the Government in respect of the intended arrival of the Chinese research vessel, Sri Lanka has to exploit all International safeguards to overcome potential threats from the so called “powerful states”. In a background where “powerful states” would not miss an opportunity to exploit the circumstances in other States, countries such as Sri Lanka have to depend on the shield or weapon of international law to protect their interests.

Therefore, for them, it is the codified rule of the Rights and Duties of a Neutral State and the incorporation of the relevant provisions of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea into Domestic Law or the fact that its provisions are part of Customary Law to protect its sovereign rights and enforce its interests in the Exclusive Economic Zone.

Such material should form the framework of a Standard Operating Procedure as suggested in a previous article (Neutral Foreign Policy in Practice, August 22, 2023). A strengthened Sri Lanka would then be in a position to avail itself of the resources of the International Court of justice, as other countries have done to seek redress. Furthermore, since they are numerically greater, their strength lies in a Rules based World Order and not on “power”, irrespective of its source.

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Some buildings with their attributes gone forever



Rest houses were places we grew up with and most had existed during the later years of British rule in Ceylon. Counterpart in India was called a dakh bungalow, or so Cass remembers from staying overnight long ago in one in Sanchi. Rest houses were really what their name implied: places to rest in; mostly for government administrators when they travelled on government business termed circuits. There were the circuit bungalows too but they were in remote areas and with much less amenities.

The best-known rest houses were Nuwara Wewa and Tisa Wewa in Anuradhapura, the one jutting into the Parakrama Samudra in Polonnaruwa, in Belihuloya, Ella, Hambantota Tissamaharama, Kankesanturai and Elephant Pass, and in Peradeniya, opposite the Botanical Gardens. They were well known for their gentlemanly keepers, most dressed in cloth and shirt, and the food served: excellent lunches with the invariable fried karola or hal messo; the wonderful coconut sambol and the fried red chillies which was not a usual homemade appetizer.

Now, most of these wonderful places of staying in comparatively cheap, are called resorts and expanded, losing the old-world charm, the warm welcoming ambience, and the spacious one storey roominess. They were tossed aside by hotels being constructed and so they too changed ‘shape’. One or two deteriorated – the Hambantota RH accompanied by the deterioration in standard of clientele too becoming more a water hole than temporary stay-in place. Some surpassed their previous selves like the Ella RH which was transformed to a high-end inn.

We often lunched and stayed in several times and remembered was the Peradeniya RH with its wide veranda with tables to lunch or dine at, looking across at the trees in the Gardens, particularly that variety which had red drooping down flowers bordered by bright red spathes which we called kukul kakul and even ate, delighting in its sour flavour. No more. None of the view of glorious nature; none of the almost al fresco lunching; none of the old-world charm and particular ambience of the old rest house. It has been rebuilt and ‘developed’ to a horrible state.

Change – for better, for worse

On a recent visit to Kandy after many years the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens was walked through, with plenty others, both local and foreign. One small niggle of doubt was the fee charged from foreigners Rs 3,500, Cass believes. Too excessive is her opinion particularly in comparison to what locals pay. We should not fleece foreigners though they are with dollars, pounds sterling, euros or whatever.

The gardens are excellently maintained; the orchid house glorious in its blooms and the banning of vehicular traffic very wise. Unlike many of our Buddhist places; visitors who found it difficult to walk much and toddlers were amply catered for by frequently running motorised open vehicles. The layout of the Gardens is almost the same as it was for many decades previous, but improved and maintained sprucely clean.

In sharp contrast was the Peradeniya Rest house. Cass forgot to note its name. The old building was so stately yet with a comforting, welcoming air about it. You usually parked yourself in the wide quarter-walled verandah at a table or in a comfy, un-upholstered chair. Now you are led to the first floor to a fully curtained room. Tall windows were all closed and the drawn curtains obliterated even a glimpse of the outside. Cass ordered rice and curry since she did not want a buffet lunch. Not possible to serve rice and curry a la carte was the waiter’s reply. Only Chinese dishes could be ordered. Cass was aghast.

Imagine not being able to order our basic meal in a restaurant that was a rest house previously with the reputation of serving the best rice ’n curry. You had to have the buffet if you wanted rice and curry; if you ordered your lunch it would be Chinese – fried rice, chopsuey, etc. Isn’t that a travesty? You are enclosed claustrophobically in a heavily curtained room with fans; cut off from fresh air and all the greenery around, and dictated to on what you eat. That is development for you!! Cass calls it mudalali aberration. The buffet was simple enough with a couple of additions like soup to a rice and curry meal costing 1800. Chinese was 1200.

Special committees

I am sure all adults of Sri Lanka object to President RW’s promise to set up a Parliamentary Committee to look into and report on the Easter Sunday suicide bombs in April 2019. A comment people make is that RW’s solution to any problem/matter is to appoint a committee; never mind the report and taking action.

You can bet your last thousand rupees that if a Parliamentary Committee is set up to report on the C4 documentary and its repercussions etc., all politicians will be exonerated and the ones who are pointed at as the accused, would be pronounced lily white. Zahran did it all by himself with ISIS control. We millions of Ordinaries too cry out against a fully local panel of investigators, and never a group of MPS.

A boxed news item on page 1 of The Island of Tuesday September 19 had this heading: CID takes over probe into gun attack on MP. The car with Anuradhapura District MP Uddika Premarathne was shot at. No one was injured. But quick as lightning, the Police handed over the hunt for perpetrators to the CID. They too will work overtime and catch the miscreants.

Good! But what happens over the several motorbike shootings and those guilty of distributing dangerous drugs and making this lovely island rotten with drug importers, peddlers and takers? Oh, those can be taken time over and never nail the guilty and punish them. Rather assist those caught and jailed to get out or at least attempt escape.

Heartwarming story

An Indian friend sent me this story which so gladdened my maternal heart. It is shared here so more mothers could feel appreciated.

Ninth Grader Ajunath Sindhu Vinayala of Trissur (Kerala), often heard his father brush his mother aside as “just a housewife. She does not work.” Ajunath was surprised because he never saw his mother not busy so he painted this picture (published with this article) depicting all the chores she did. His teacher sent it to the State govt office where it got selected as the cover for the 2021 gender budget document. The appreciative son with more of his pictures can be accessed on the Internet.

Almost all Sri Lankan mothers will agree with Cass that our sons and daughters are wonderfully grateful and caring people, with many living overseas but still visiting, transferring money and sending parcels of goodies and necessities. Bless them, we mothers/grandmothers chorus.

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Amunugama on Anagarika: A partial review



By Uditha Devapriya

In the course of his study of myths and legends, Bruce Kapferer observes that those who attempt to rationalise myths are as much in error as those who believe in their literal meaning. There are several points in his book with which I beg to differ, but I agree with this specific point. Myths have a logic and a life of their own, and any external compulsion to alter or rationalise them will be met with hostility. Kapferer’s other contention, that myths are continually being renewed and reborn, is also tenable. The narrative around which these myths revolve may stay the same, but the implications of such stories change from era to era. Millenarian platitudes about glorious pasts and histories, of utopic Edens before the Fall, whether in Buddhist or Christian societies, fall into that category.

I reflected on Kapferer when I reread Sarath Amunugama’s impressive book on Anagarika Dharmapala, The Lion’s Roar, the other day. Dharmapala has gone down as perhaps the most misunderstood national figure or figurehead in our history. For close to two centuries if not more, Sri Vikrama Rajasinghe got a bad press as well, but thanks to recent forays by Gananath Obeyesekere, we have come to understand and, as a nation, identify with the tragic figure that he was. Dharmapala, however, is more complex, because his writings and speeches lend themselves to a multiplicity of interpretations: out of necessity, he made it a point to speak differently to different people. Ultimately, I believe all national figures end up being misunderstood. Dharmapala was no different.

What Amunugama tries to do in The Lion’s Roar is to present Dharmapala in a new light. As one reads through his book, one realises how predictably he has been presented until now. Most contemporary assessments of Anagarika Dharmapala place him at the forefront of the Buddhist Revival of the late 19th century. Though, in later years, he broke ranks with the organisation which gave the revival its impetus, the Theosophical Society, he nevertheless maintained contacts with it. Sociologists and anthropologists have presented the Revival as having been led by an emergent, nascent Buddhist bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie. The latter were constantly frustrated in their efforts to join the ranks of the former, a point which more or less pitted them against foreign traders and minority groups.

Anagarika Dharmapala

Until now, social scientists have been content in casting Dharmapala as a messiah, of sorts, of this petty bourgeoisie. Dharmapala’s actions certainly did not endear him to the up-and-coming Sinhala bourgeoisie. Unlike his brothers Edmund and Charles, he was alienated from the many elite and bourgeois groups which formed the basis of later political associations, of which the most prominent would have to be the Ceylon National Congress. That may have been because of Dharmapala’s own background, which stood a tier or two below that of the Senanayakes and the Attygalles. Sarath Amunugama goes as far as to contend that the death of F. R. Senanayake in India closed the possibility of an open conflict between Dharmapala and these families. Yet even Senanayake’s death did not wholly foreclose these possibilities, as the many press campaigns against Dharmapala shows.

Anagarika Dharmapala

Is it accurate, then, to locate Dharmapala at that crucial juncture between the formation of the Theosophical Society, the beginning of the Buddhist Revival in the late 19th century, and the emergence of a weak but aspirant Buddhist petty bourgeoisie in the early 20th? This is how social scientists have generally viewed him, so far.

Dharmapala himself may not have been conscious of his role here. Yet as Regi Siriwardena eloquently put it once, “[t]o say that any thinker or leader served the interests of a particular class is not necessarily to say that he was conscious of doing so, still less that he was hired or commanded by that class.” The ultimatum of social scientists and anthropologists, hence, seems to be that he became the ideological vehicle of these groups, that as the latter’s attitudes to foreigners and minorities hardened, they saw in him a definitive “ancestor from antiquity.”

Amunugama attempts to shed new light on Dharmapala’s followers and acolytes by bringing to the foreground groups which have been excluded from most contemporary assessments of Dharmapala’s life. Prime among them are what Amunugama sees as “subaltern” groups, among whom he includes the Sinhala working class. This working class, he contends rather convincingly, were swept away from their roots into the cities, where they confronted a new and different social order.

As they became more aware of the conditions of their existence and sought to transform them, they began to encounter foreign traders and minority groups, hired by the colonial government to counter the growing tide of trade unionism and Sinhala proletarian discontent. It is against this backdrop that they saw Dharmapala as a saviour, and not just a saviour, but someone they could call their own.

This is, to be sure, an intriguing point. Yet how “subaltern” were these classes Amunugama associates with Dharmapala? Without splitting hairs too much, I think we must bear two points in mind. The first is that, until the formation of a Left movement in the 1930s, no political association, however radical, envisioned a Ceylon falling outside of the orbit of the British Empire. This was as true of bourgeois reformist associations as it was of nationalist ideologues. Whatever “subaltern group” in Sri Lanka at this juncture saw things differently, in contrast to their mobilisation by the Left after 1935. In that sense Dharmapala fulfilled a role, however limited, for these groups. The Marxists could not have been more different to his ideology, as their struggles on behalf of Indian Tamil plantation workers showed. But then Dharmapala was no Marxist, even if a scion of his family – Anil Moonesinghe – made a seminal contribution to the Left movement of the country.

The second point recalls an observation Gananath Obeyesekere once made in relation to Dharmapala and his disciples: namely, that their attitudes to the Other – which Amunugama dwells on at considerable length in his remarkable study – were paradoxically activated by their alienation from their social and kinship groups. In their quest for “identity affirmation”, the Dharmapalists sought a negative identity for themselves, in relation to the Other.

I think that more or less explains the Sinhala working class’s affinity for Dharmapala, at a time of rising anger against foreign traders and minority groups, including the Malayalis. Such anger cannot be condoned, especially when it transforms into racialist feelings. But it helps explain why, in the absence of an anti-imperialist Left movement in the country, these groups could gravitate to nationalist figures – and why even as key a representative of the Sinhala working class movement as A. E. Gunasinha could invoke him in his struggles.

Does this necessarily mean Dharmapala’s politics were not anti-imperialist, or in the least radical? I think the jury is still out there, though I believe that Dharmapala’s emphasis on industrialisation has been missed out by those who see only his ranting against other social groups and ethnicities. Dharmapala once counted among his defenders a highly unlikely figure: Yohan Devananda.

Writing in the Lanka Guardian, in response to Regi Siriwardena, Devananda contended that Dharmapala “did perform an essential historical function in rousing the national consciousness against the foreigner.” I do not know what to make of this assertion, given that for Dharmapala’s followers, “the foreigner” has come to include all groups deemed “alien” in the country. But there is no doubt that he did, at the end of the day, serve a function. The question that countless scholars have raised, which Amunugama tries to answer, is exactly in whose interests he served that function.

The writer is an international relations analyst, independent researcher, and freelance columnist who can be reached at

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